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A confirmed total of 303 people were taken into hospital following the attack. Of those, 121 remain there receiving treatment, with 26 still in intensive care. The Centre Hospitalier Universitaire de Nice, where the dead and injured were taken, is in crisis mode and has put out an emergency number for families of the victims: 00 33 (0)4 93 72 22 22.
The terror began a little after 22:30 (20:30 GMT) on Thursday, shortly after thousands of people had watched a Bastille Day fireworks display on the seafront in Nice. A large, white lorry was seen driving erratically a couple of streets away from the seafront promenade. The lorry then turned on to the promenade heading south-west towards the airport.
A half hour later, a German journalist on a hotel balcony saw the lorry double back from the direction of the airport and drive through the barriers erected on the promenade. “He was driving really slowly, that’s what was astonishing,” said Richard Gutjahr, who described seeing a motorcyclist try to overtake the lorry and even try to open lorry driver’s door. At that point the motorcyclist, unfortunately, fell under the wheels of the lorry.
When two police officers opened fire on the lorry, the driver accelerated and careered at full speed towards the crowd. The vehicle zigzagged for up to 2km (1.25 miles), as the driver deliberately ran people down. Hundreds were run over as others scrambled to safety.
Police finally managed to bring the lorry to a halt, at which point Lahouaiej-Bouhlel opened fire on the crowd while trying to escape. He was finally killed by pursuing police.
The manager of Le Voilier Plage restaurant in Nice described the panic as revellers learnt what was happening. He said: “Just as the fireworks finished we saw a lorry drive on to the pavement. There was massive panic—there must have been somewhere between 1,000 and 1,500 people on the Promenade des Anglais. There was an awful panic, people were running everywhere. We provided a refuge for some people, mothers, children. There were people lying on the ground who were injured or worse. There were children in tears.”
The driver of the lorry has been identified as 31-year-old Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel, of Franco-Tunisian origin. Divorced with three children, Lahouaiej-Bouhlel was unknown to security services, but is thought to have been known to police from his criminal history.
It’s been reported that he had become depressed following the break-down of his marriage, and had suffered from financial problems. Neighbours mentioned that he had often ranted about his wife in the local cafe. They described him as a rude loner, and said he had not been particularly interested in religion, preferring girls and salsa.
Lahouaiej-Bouhlel is said to have hired the lorry from a rental company on 11 July, and had been due to return it on 13 July. At the time of the attack, he was in possession of an automatic pistol, bullets, a fake automatic pistol and two replica assault rifles (a Kalashnikov and an M16), and an empty grenade.
His estranged wife was taken into custody on Friday morning and is being questioned over his links to terrorism, along with four others believed to have connections with him. Authorities are still investigating whether or not he acted alone.
ISIL has claimed responsibility for the attack, with an Islamic, State-run, media outlet calling Lahouaiej-Bouhlel a “soldier” of the group. On Saturday, the Aamaq newsagency cited a “security source” as saying the attacker “carried out the operation in response to calls to target the citizens of coalition countries fighting the Islamic State.”
French authorities are checking the claim, and officials have admitted that the terrorist nature of the attack cannot be denied. However, a police source has raised the question of whether Lahouaiej-Bouhlel may have been “a suicide case who decided to make his suicide look like an Islamist attack. Investigators are being cautious about definitively ascribing a motive for the time being.”
Due to the large numbers of residents who have left to fight in Syria, Nice is considered a town under particular terrorist threat. Earlier last week the DGSI, the French intelligence agency responsible for internal security, warned of the danger of further booby-trapped vehicle and bomb attacks from Islamist militants. And only hours before the attack François Hollande, the French president, received a letter from Christian Estrosi, President of the Regional Council, warning that national police officers were under-equipped and exhausted after months of working overtime in a state of emergency.
President Hollande had recently announced that France’s state of emergency would be removed later this month; however, now it will be extended for another three months. He has also pledged to step up military activity in Syria and Iraq, along with reassessing the domestic terror threat. France’s borders are being tightened and a military operation is in place allowing the mobilisation of 10,000 troops. “A fresh atrocity has just been inflicted on France,” he said in a televised address. “We will maintain a high level of vigilance…”.
Police vans that had been blocking off the promenade for a military parade were withdrawn by the French authorities just hours before rampage, and despite France being on heightened alert, only 60 officers were on duty.
Luc Poignant, of the Unité SGP Police FO union, said: “The security set-up was sufficient. Indeed, a policeman neutralised (the killer). And people wanting to stroll along the Promenade des Anglais were searched. But people must understand that one cannot prevent a lorry smashing through barriers and charging a crowd unless we erect concrete walls along the Promenade des Anglais. No security set-up can stop this type of attack. There is no controversy over security on this night.”
Following the attack, President Francois Hollande flew back to Paris from Avignon, joining Prime Minister Manuel Valls along with other cabinet ministers, and defence and security chiefs, in a series of crisis meetings. The anti-terror alert was raised to its highest level in the area around Nice and the PM declared three days of mourning from Saturday.
World leaders have joined in condemning the attack, sending their condolences and offering support.